Poverty & The Family
Posted on January 29, 2016
I expected last week’s post on Fatherhood and a Misguided Economic Philosophy to bring forth some great discussion, and I wasn’t disappointed. The thinking driving conservative poverty policy is both misguided and outdated. When one’s political actions are founded in a view that those in poverty are animalistic and manipulative, it results in harm that dramatically plays out in communities and in the home.
Discussions around fatherhood are a great example of the struggle to match religious, political, cultural, and economic worldviews to the reality facing families in poverty. While economists like George Gilder make it easy to get upset and angry, we have to transcend this reaction if we are going to find true solutions. I wanted to put forth a few of my own struggles with this topic and, more generally, about how poverty impacts the family.
My first struggle with the conservative focus on fatherhood is that it assumes a traditional family structure. Reading conservative economists, there seems to be an obsession with a “traditional” American family, consisting of a biological mom and dad and their 2.5 kids. This is not the reality that I experienced working with families experiencing poverty. A majority of my clients’ families had grandparents, uncles, cousins, friends, and many other combinations of family members and friends living under one roof.
A reliance on fatherhood also discounts many of the loving families with LGBTQ parents. While a biological father has a key role in many families, he isn’t necessary for there to be a functional family system. Family means different things to different people.
A family trying to survive poverty often looks dramatically different from those buying minivans in television commercials. While these families wouldn’t match Gilder’s expectation of “the American family,” I found great strength and love within these systems, whether or not a biological father was present. These family systems developed out of love but also out of necessity to survive the economic hardships of poverty.
It was the struggle, and not lack of love or caring, that lead to the dysfunction that economists often point to in these systems. Looking into an impoverished home (if the family is lucky enough to have stable housing), it is easy to blame the individual members’ actions. However, if we just pull back a little and examine the family’s struggles in the context of their community, it becomes obvious in most cases that the family’s hardships are representative of their community’s struggles (high incarceration rates, violence, failing schools, lack of meaningful employment, addiction) and exacerbated by the stress of daily survival facing those in poverty.
I also struggle with the conservative focus on fatherhood, as it primarily relates to those in poverty. I have yet to see any statistical proof that fathers living in poverty are better or worse as fathers than fathers in other socioeconomic classes. It seems very elitist to target fathers in poverty and say that if they could just be a better man, provider, caretaker, then our country could finally solve it problem with poverty. This micro-level focus of assuming that someone needs to be “trained” to be a father simply because of their economic status seems misguided at best, and racist and elitist at its worse.
There is a reality that single parent homes have a greater chance of living in poverty. The economic math here is pretty easy, in that two adult incomes are greater than one. So there are more single mothers living below the poverty line. Conservative economists love blaming the “welfare mom” who, the narrative goes, pops out one child after another to rake in the sweet government benefits of the safety net. All research I’ve seen shows that this perception is statistically just not true.
Leaving aside the realities of the welfare system, if we focus in at the micro level, there appears to be plenty of blame to go around. Where is the biological father, why does mom keep having kids out of wedlock, who is failing to teach these often-very-young people the moralities of sex and marriage? If you want to blame the mom or dad, there is plenty of ammunition to fill a political stump speech.
Again, by stepping back, one can see a different picture. Those who don’t see hope for a better future, who are struggling with unresolved trauma, or who are in day-to-day survival mode do not typically spend much time family planning or thinking about long term consequences. This often leads to bad decisions in the moment, which often continue the generational patterns that keep people in poverty.
Families are diverse, beautiful things that often reflect both the strengths and hardships of their communities. Conservatives take the easy way out when they go into the home and start assigning blame according to traditional family norms and values. If we are really going to help families in poverty, we must see them in the larger context of their environment. This doesn’t mean we can’t help parents be better parents, but we have to stop assuming that those in poverty are incapable parents just because of their economic status.
Let’s give young men and women a strong education, meaningful employment, adequate human rights (housing, health care, food), and services that provide a ladder out of poverty. Let’s also stop the harmful and dehumanizing rhetoric towards those in our wealthy society that are struggling. Their success will benefit us all, and demonizing them shows the ugliest side of our human nature.